Editor’s Note: Steven Holmes, a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and Washington Post, is an executive director in CNN’s News Standards and Practices Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Steven Holmes writes that the relative lack of statues of Longstreet, who favored Reconstruction after the Civil War, shows that Confederate history is seen through a political lens
Erecting a statue to a man who favored political cooperation with blacks was out of step with the "Lost Cause" view of the Civil War, Holmes writes
So where are Longstreet’s statues?
General James Longstreet was an important figure in the Confederate Army; as important as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart or A.P. Hill; nearly as critical to the Confederate cause as Robert E. Lee.
A genius at combining offensive and defensive maneuvers, Longstreet led his 28,000 men in a flanking movement – described as the largest simultaneous mass assault of the war – and routed the Union Army at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. The carnage that Longstreet’s stout defense inflicted on attacking Union troops during the Battle of Fredericksburg a month later was so great that Lee, watching it, observed, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Longstreet’s defeat of the northern troops during the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863 provided the Confederacy with its only major victory after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg.
He was, by most accounts, Lee’s most trusted general. Lee once termed him “the staff in my right hand,” and by the end of the war made Longstreet his second-in-command.
Yet outside of a roadside sign near his birthplace in Edgefield, South Carolina, one statue in Gainesville, Georgia, where he died, and his name on a few streets in a handful of Southern towns, there are virtually no memorials to Longstreet throughout the South – or the entire country, for that matter.
A World II tank was named after Stuart. Military bases are named after Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood and eight other Confederate generals.
“Stonewall” Jackson’s visage is carved on Stone Mountain outside Atlanta. But few people, apart from ardent Civil War buffs, have ever heard of Longstreet.
At a time of debate over the removal of Confederate monuments and amid charges that some protestors want to “erase history,” Longstreet’s near-expungement raises questions about whose history is being scrubbed away and why that history was created in the first place. It underscores that history – and particularly the history of the Civil War – is not simply an objective chronicling of facts. It is often shaped by people to promote particular political agendas and ideologies.
Despite his distinguished war record, Longstreet’s absence from the pantheon of Confederate heroes was no accident. It was the result of a deliberate campaign by Southerners to punish him for his actions following the war.
After the end of the war, Longstreet eventually settled in New Orleans. There, unlike many of his compatriots, he spoke out in favor of Reconstruction. He became a Republican. He endorsed Ulysses S. Grant – who was reviled by Southerners – for president in 1868. In 1874, he had the temerity to lead a predominantly black force of state militia in pitched gun battles against white supremacists in the streets of New Orleans. To many in the South, these efforts branded Longstreet a traitor to the white race to be either vilified – or forgotten.
“He was nearly erased from Confederate history,” says William Garrett Piston, professor emeritus of history at Missouri State University, who wrote a biography of Longstreet. “There were complicated circumstances. But at the bottom it was because of the fact that Longstreet shocked and outraged white Southerners, because he was willing to participate in biracial politics.”
Longstreet was no racial saint. He argued privately that whites needed to embrace Reconstruction so that they, and not the newly freed blacks, would be in charge of rebuilding the South.
Still, any attempt at cooperation with the victorious North and the newly emancipated slaves ran afoul of the growing “Lost Cause” movement in the South. Lost Cause adherents glorified the antebellum South, painting a bucolic tableau of Southern belles, stately plantations and happy slaves. They created the myth of “gallant” Confederate soldiers who only lost the war because they were ground down by the overwhelming numbers of the Union army. They cast Reconstruction as a corrupt and ineffective exercise foisted on the South by “radical” Republicans and carried out by incompetent black freedmen, evil Yankee “carpetbaggers” and traitorous Southern “scalawags.”
Lost Cause advocates took over the Southern Historical Society, and later convinced Northern historians to accept their view of the war and its aftermath. As a result, for the rest of the 19th Century and most of the 20th Century, this view became settled in both popular history and culture, influencing such important – and, some say, racist – works as D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling book – later a blockbuster movie – “Gone With the Wind.”
Of course, many of these apologists for the South didn’t just want to rewrite history to glorify the Confederate cause. A spate of constructing monuments to the Confederacy took place in the period when Jim Crow laws were being imposed, the Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith and blacks were being subjected to a campaign of terror. The NAACP, which did its best to keep track of this grisly statistic, noted that more than 2,500 black people were lynched in the South between 1889 and 1918 – prime building years for Confederate monuments.
Erecting a statue to someone like Longstreet, who urged political cooperation with blacks, did not fit into this campaign of intimidation.
Lost cause “historians” also set out to destroy Longstreet’s military record. After Lee’s death in 1870 when the venerated general was no longer around to defend his trusted lieutenant, Lost Cause adherents perpetrated a false story that Longstreet had deliberately disobeyed Lee’s order to attack the Union lines at sunrise on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. That disobedience, they argued, lost the battle – and, in their eyes, the war.
Though he publicly and vociferously disagreed with Lee’s tactics during Gettysburg, historians now agree that Longstreet had dutifully followed Lee’s orders. On the third day of the fight, he sent his troops, led by one of his chief subordinate, Gen. George Pickett, to attack the fortified Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. Marching across an open field, the Confederates were cut to pieces.
For decades, textbooks have glorified “Pickett’s charge” as the epitome of Southern bravery. There is even an army base in Virginia named after him. But because Longstreet dared to work for some kind of reconciliation after the war, hardly anyone remembers who gave Pickett the order.
Longstreet did not help his reputation after the war when, in his memoirs and other writings, he was highly critical of Lee’s decision to invade the North in 1863 and Lee’s tactics at the battle of Gettysburg. For Lost Cause adherents, and many other Southerners who had elevated Lee to almost God-like status, this was seen as heresy.
“There were certain things you could do in the South after the war, and certain things you couldn’t do.” says Christopher Gwinn, chief historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. “One of the things you couldn’t do was criticize Robert E. Lee.”
In recent years, Longstreet’s reputation has undergone rehabilitation among historians, if not the general public. In 1998, a grassroots campaign raised enough funds to build a statue to him at the Gettysburg park. It was one of the few major monuments to Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg that was not paid for by taxpayers in the states of the former Confederacy.
It is also, according to some historians, one of the least impressive. It is not mounted on a pedestal. It is almost hidden away behind a screen of trees, set in an out-of-the-way section of the 6,000-acre park away from the more majestic memorials that honor Confederate – and Union – soldiers.
“Until that monument went up, there was no monument to Longstreet anywhere in the country. And there are still very few in the South compared to the dozens and dozens dedicated to Lee, Jackson and others,” says James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer prize winning history of the Civil War,”Battle Cry of Freedom.”
With President Trump lamenting the loss of “beautiful” statues of Confederate soldiers and generals, he, and others who hold similar views, might contemplate why the “beauty” of Longstreet’s military record and of his vision – however flawed – of biracial politics in the South after the war were hoisted on so few pedestals.